One of the reasons I became a chef was for the prospect of being able to travel. I saw cooking as a way to see the world and get paid while doing it, and so far it is working out reasonably well. I was lucky enough to be invited to judge at the most recent Hotel Asia cooking competitions in Sri Lanka. Having never visited the country before was relishing the opportunity to see the competition entries, meet some new fellow chefs and to hopefully get out and about and see a little bit of the city while I was there.
Sri Lanka has for a long time been in a state of civil war and is just starting to enjoy the positive influence peace time brings. As we were driving along some of the streets in Colombo to and from the event centre where the competitions were held I asked one of the chefs I was with what Colombo was like. He said now it’s great. The country is becoming prosperous again and growing with increased foreign investment and in the next few years the city is going to grow and will be the place to be.
Colombo is an interesting city in a developing country. The poverty gap seems quite large. In the central city there are grand 5 star international hotels but you drive past slums on the way to them during the hour’s drive from the airport. This is the same as many Asian countries although here you feel that the place is still trying to catch up from the mess that is war. You won’t find the same massive shopping centers as in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore but you will find smaller shopping centers and shops, much the same as in Bangkok or Saigon.
Colombo is on the coast and the temperature although humid, is actually quite nice with the sea breeze. Getting around is easy and there are a lot of tuk tuk’s if you’re not going too far. Although be careful to check out the distance of where you are going on the map first and always agree on the price beforehand or go on the meter. Crime doesn’t seem to be a massive problem unless you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time although unless you’re careful you will probably get ripped off. The best bet is not to accept anyone’s help and to be informed about where/what you want to do and look up how much it will cost before you head out. There are some nice parks in Colombo and some beautiful Buddhist temples with Buddhism being the major religion. The artwork in some of these temples is amazing and it is customary to remove your shoes before entering and to give a small donation for the privilege.
I love Sri Lankan food and for me it is like a mix between Indian and Malay cuisine with beautifully fragrant curries with their own unique curry blends and the frequent use of coconut and rice for both sweet and savoury dishes. If you get a chance do try a hopper. Hoppers are very much the Sri Lankan version of a crepe and my favorite had an egg cracked into it, cooked and folder over and served with a very spicy sambal.
All is calm now and it’s easy to forget the troubles that aren’t that far in the past. Apparently driving around now takes 10% of the time it used to as now the road blocks and bomb checks are no longer there, although there is still a very visible military presence. The hotel I was staying at was nice I remarked to a colleague, a little bit tired but the lobby seemed a bit newer. Yeah that’s because it was bombed a few years ago and the General Manager killed was the response. Walking around the lively city civil war almost seemed worlds away.